Welcome to the drone economy. Originally developed for covert military operations overseas, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – better known as drones – are coming home. In the next three to five years (2018 to 2020), analysts expect the domestic commercial use of drones to boom across dozens of industries, from law enforcement to Hollywood moviemaking.
The last remaining obstacle to drone dominance in the United States is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has banned the commercial use of drones above 500 feet (152 meters) and beyond visual sight of the operator [source: Jansen]. Businesses that want to use drones either have to hire licensed pilots or apply for an FAA exemption [source: FAA].
Drone advocates say the overly strict regulations are stifling innovation. Under pressure from the Obama administration, the FAA is expected to release new rules in September 2015 that could loosen restrictions on commercial drones and initiate a full-on drone boom.
The widespread commercial use of drones is predicted to inject $13.6 billion in the U.S. economy over the next three years and create 70,000 jobs in both drone manufacturing and flight operations [source: AUVSI]. Future drone pilots are already enrolling by the hundreds in UAV training programs at colleges like Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida and the University of North Dakota [source: Kolpak].
You might be surprised by who's making use of drone technology Here are 10 UAV jobs that are set to explode over the next decade.
The greatest advantage of drones is the ability to go places that are too remote or dangerous for a human being. The military exploits this advantage to run missions deep in enemy territory. Wildlife conservationists use UAVs to monitor and protect fragile species in danger zones across the planet.
Outside the U.S., groups like the World Wildlife Fund are protecting elephants and rhinos from armed poachers in remote parts of Kenya and Nepal with a squadron of surveillance drones paid for by Google [source: Qiu].
Even in the U.S., where regulations are tight, the U.S. Geological Survey won permission to use a retired military drone to monitor a flock of greater sage grouse in Colorado. The 4-pound (2-kilogram) Raven A drone can take photos and thermal images of the birds without disturbing their breeding grounds [source: Hood].
In places as diverse as west Greenland; the seas off the coast of Belize; and the jungles of Sumatra, Indonesia, conservationists are using drones to map hard-to-reach habitats, monitor the health of migrating whales, track fish populations and protect orangutans from illegal logging. One ecologist told National Geographic, "A forest that would normally require one to two weeks to survey can be done in a few days using a drone" [source: Qiu].
The trans-Alaska pipeline runs 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) from the frozen oil fields of Prudhoe Bay in northern Alaska to the nearest ice-free port in Valdez. The 48-inch (1.2-meter) pipeline, which transports a slurry of crude oil and natural gas to the lower 48 states, is an engineering marvel that carries 15 percent of America's domestic oil production [source: Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau].
A single leak along any of those 800 miles not only results in lost revenue for BP, which owns the pipeline, but also environmental havoc. A 2006 pipeline fracture in Prudhoe Bay resulted in 200,000 gallons (757,082 liters) of oil spilled across 2 acres (0.81 hectares), and a 2014 leak sprayed an oily mist across 27 acres (11 hectares) of tundra. The 2006 leak necessitated a $500 million upgrade [source: DeMarban].
BP is experimenting with drones equipped with thermal cameras that can detect leaks and weak spots along the pipeline for a fraction of the expense of deploying a helicopter [source: BP].
Drones are also proving indispensable for inspecting the massive turbine blades of wind farms, which can be hundreds of feet above the ground. Huge solar energy operations with acres and acres of panels are also partnering with drone outfitters to detect broken panels and defective turbines using automated swarms of aerial cameras. Drones can even be used to scare off birds and other wild animals that could get injured or damage remote equipment [source: Woody].
Search and Rescue
When a Category 5 hurricane drills into a densely populated coastline, or a mudslide buries a remote village, one of the hardest tasks of search-and-rescue crews is simply getting to the site of the disaster. Drones offer an effective combination of maneuverability and high-tech imaging to locate survivors in the most extreme disaster conditions.
A lightweight search-and-rescue drone equipped with a thermal imaging camera can fly low over a disaster site scanning the wreckage for signs of life. Rescue workers can save valuable time by focusing on known survivors instead of randomly digging through debris in the remote chance of finding life.
A funky-looking search-and-rescue drone prototype called the GimBall took home the $1 million grand prize at the 2015 "Drones for Good" competition in the United Arab Emirates. The small, two-prop drone is surrounded by a collapsible geodesic cage. The flexible exoskeleton allows the drone to squeeze into tight spaces and bounce off fallen debris without sustaining damage. The carbon-fiber cage also protects survivors from the drone's whirling turbines [source: Dent].
Camera-equipped drones are also becoming powerful tools for search operations in remote locations, such as lost hikers or missing children. A fleet of remote-control drones is far less expensive and difficult to organize than a hundred-person search party, and drones can fly in subfreezing temperatures and blazing heat.
The newsroom of the future will absolutely include a fleet of UAVs armed with high-definition cameras to capture live breaking news events and give a bird's-eye perspective on important stories.
After a 2015 cyclone ravaged the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, NBC News captured startling footage of the fresh wreckage with a drone. And when the BBC assembled a collection of feature stories honoring the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, it produced a remarkable aerial video shot by a soaring drone.
As of April 2015, FAA regulations still greatly restrict the use of drones by journalists, but that is expected to change later this year. For now, journalist drones are prohibited from flying over crowds of people, which prevents the aerial coverage of riots and demonstrations. Once drones have proven safe, it's not hard to imagine close coverage of car chases, protests and live sporting events with swarms of remote-controlled cameras.
Privacy will surely be an issue. As it is, there are already reports of scoop-starved celebrity photographers using drones to buzz over the backyards of Hollywood stars [source: Evans]. Congress and the courts will have to draw the line between the pursuit of truth and protecting the innocent.
Agriculture, surprisingly, is expected to provide some of the most fertile ground for the widespread use of UAVs [source: AeroVironment]. We're not talking about the folksy family farm down the road. The types of farms and ranches that would most benefit from drones are massive operations covering hundreds or even thousands of acres.
Drones will become a critical component of what's called precision agriculture. In the past, farmers would apply the same amount of fertilizer across an entire field, even if nutrient levels fluctuated greatly from one acre of soil to the next. The same was true for pesticides: Instead of hand-inspecting plants row by row, farmers would douse the entire crop with chemicals to prevent an outbreak.
In the near future, a drone equipped with infrared imaging cameras could detect chlorophyll levels in leaves, creating a detailed fertility map for an entire field. The next drone, armed with GPS coordinates and fertilizer, could spray the plants that need it most, cutting down on costs and potentially harmful chemical runoff.
And when harvest time approaches, farmers could inspect the ripeness of tomatoes and pumpkins in far-flung fields without hiring teams of workers to walk the rows. You could even envision a vacuum-equipped drone that could suck up samples of insects to determine the precision application of pesticides.
Police Drone Operator
A pair of dangerous convicts have escaped from the local prison and are believed to be hiding out in an overgrown corn field. The men might be armed, but the cops can't be sure. They could send in a police helicopter, but its noisy approach would tip off the fugitives to lay low. Plus, most local police forces can't afford a helicopter.
Bring on the drones!
Stowed in the trunk of the squad car and assembled in minutes, a police drone can quietly buzz over the field, capturing real-time infrared and thermal images to locate the fugitives. The cameras could also detect if the men are armed or injured, critical information for planning their capture while protecting officers' lives.
Drone-assisted police work is already a reality in cities and towns across America, but has run into strong resistance from privacy advocates who fear the emergence of a Big Brother-like police state [source: Sengupta]. For the most part, police drones have been limited to search-and-rescue operations, or taking aerial photos of an accident or crime scene [source: Pilkington].
Another potentially controversial use of police drones is for crowd control during violent protests or riots. A South African company builds and sells a wicked-looking crowd-control drone called the "Skunk" armed with four paintball guns that can each shoot 20 rounds per second. Note that the paintballs can also be swapped out for rubber bullets or pepper spray pellets [source: Gray].
Drone-assisted Property Management
Browse local real estate listings online and you usually see slideshows of static photos taken from the corners of empty rooms. Now imagine a real estate listing featuring a high-definition video that takes you soaring over the rooftop down to the backyard, then in through the open back door and up the stairs to the master bedroom. Sure beats a lawn sign.
Drones will be a huge boon to real estate and property management professionals, as soon as the FAA gives them permission to fly. The FAA is issuing permits on a case-by-case basis to businesses that employ drones to film real estate marketing videos, but the National Association of Realtors encourages its members to hold off until the UAV regulations are loosened [source: Kass].
It doesn't stop with listings. Home inspectors could use drones to survey hard-to-reach exteriors. Condominium boards in congested cities could check the condition of roofs and high-rise apartment exteriors without investing in specialized equipment and personnel. In the city of Somerville outside of Boston, the mayor recently employed drones to gauge snow levels on the roofs of public buildings like schools and hospitals to avoid a potential collapse [source: Annear].
Drones could even be used for security, helping to spot trespassers or burglars in a gated community, with the information relayed to police – assuming this kind of surveillance is allowed.
Internet.org has a lofty goal, providing affordable high-speed Internet access to every single person on the planet. The proposed solution is even loftier – literally. The Facebook-led initiative is building a fleet of solar-powered drones that will beam down the Internet to rural and remote communities from 65,000 feet (20 kilometers) [source: Zuckerberg].
Two-thirds of the world is currently without high-speed Internet access [source: Zuckerberg]. For Internet.org, this represents a tremendous untapped resource of world-changing ideas waiting to be shared. The idea is to provide a source of wireless Internet connectivity that's more cost-effective than building thousands of cell phone-style radio towers, but more powerful than a distant satellite.
In late 2014, Airbus unveiled Zephyr, a super-lightweight drone covered in paper-thin solar cells that continuously recharges its battery-powered electric engines for potentially endless flight. Satellites typically circumvent our planet at 250 miles (402 kilometers) from Earth's surface, but Zephyr can be stationed at a fixed point at 65,000 feet (19,812 meters) for long periods. The lower altitude means a stronger signal can be beamed to a wide swath of users [source: Grobart].
Facebook's Internet.org snatched up some of Zephyr's creators to work on its own solar-powered drones, and Google recently bought Titan Aerospace – another manufacturer of high-altitude drones – to pursue its own initiative for global Internet connectivity [sources: Zuckerberg, BBC].
The first-ever Drone Film Festival was held in New York City in 2014 to celebrate the art of drone cinematography. Winning submissions included a hypnotic aerial tour of the Santa Monica Pier; a colorful music video by OK Go! featuring a Busby Berkeley-style bird's-eye dance routine and a short film imagining what it would look like if you strapped a GoPro camera to Superman.
Drones are fast becoming the darling of low-budget filmmakers looking to capture the kind of shots formerly reserved for Hollywood blockbusters. No need to rent budget-busting helicopters, cranes or booms for those magnificent aerial tracking shots. A $1,000 drone and the right HD camera will do quite nicely [source: Watercutter].
In 2014, the FAA granted permission to a handful of Hollywood film and production companies to use drones on closed sets with certified pilots and flying no higher than 400 feet (122 meters) [source: Johnson]. The film industry celebrated the announcement and hopes for further loosening of the rules in late 2015.
In the not-too-distant future, Hollywood will be hiring crews of drone camera operators with both the manual dexterity to fly the whirring robots and the artistic eye to capture the scene.
Drone Package Delivery Services
Amazon, the online retailing Goliath, shipped an estimated 608 million packages in 2013 [source: Bensinger and Stevens]. Most arrive by U.S. mail or a private package delivery service from Amazon's global network of fulfillment centers, shipping everything from books to diapers to 4K ultra-HD TVs. And if you're an Amazon Prime member, your packages will arrive in two days or less, at no extra cost.
But two days isn't good enough for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who envisions a new way of getting Amazon products into the hands of online shoppers – via drones, of course!
Amazon Prime Air, if ever approved by the FAA, would use autonomous drones to deliver packages weighing less than 5 pounds (2 kilograms) to your doorstep in a zippy 30 minutes or less. Eighty-six percent of goods sold on Amazon weigh less than 5 pounds, so that could be a lot of drones in space [source: Misener].
Frustrated by the FAA's slow approval process, Bezos has moved the Amazon Prime Air R&D to Canada, where testing continues on its 10th generation drone prototypes [source: Crovitz]. Meanwhile, Google X is quietly pursuing its own drone delivery program called Project Wing. And a Silicon Valley startup called Matternet is beta-testing a drone system that runs on fixed routes between base stations in places lacking roads [sources: Madrigal, Nicas].
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Author's Note: 10 UAV Jobs of the Future
I'll admit it, drones freak me out. There's just something about an insect-like robot hovering 2 feet over my head that screams "futuristic surveillance state!" I'm not super-psyched about a world in which Amazon delivery drones darken the skies like a swarm of UPS locusts. Or a future reality in which urban street corners are policed by the glowing red eyes of airborne security cameras. Commercial drones absolutely have their place – search and rescue seems like a no-brainer – but I'm actually with the FAA on this one. Let's make sure these drones are safe and that privacy is well-protected before setting them loose in America's skies.
More Great Links
- AeroVironment. "Agriculture" (April 10, 2015) http://www.avinc.com/public-safety/applications/agricultural
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- Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. "Economic Report" (April 10, 2015) http://www.auvsi.org/econreport
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